LONDON -- On a muddy field on the outskirts of London, Britain's military showed off a weapon Thursday it hopes it never has to use.
The Rapier surface-to-air missile system has the power to take down a Boeing 747 full of passengers to protect a stadium full of 80,000 Olympic spectators in a terrorism nightmare scenario. The British military insists the missiles - with a range of up to 8,000 meters (5 miles) - would be deployed only as a last line of defense.
Experts say the likelihood that they will be fired is slim to none. Downing an aircraft would still cause debris to rain from the sky, high casualties and fires. "When you launch a Rapier missile and shoot down an aircraft, it's not like the whole thing vanishes. It's 100 tons of metal, scraps, and other stuff that is coming down," said Jan Wind, a retired Dutch Navy captain who is director of the Hague-based Wiser Consultancy.
"If a Rapier is used, the damage could be just about the same as the intentions of the terrorist - only on another spot. The goal of the terrorists will be met in a certain sense," Wind said. It's rare for the British military to publicize the location of its weapons, but the military says it hopes that any potential attacks will be deterred by showing the missile strength and other defense assets such as Typhoon fighter jets.
Ground-to-air missiles have been a fixture of Olympic games and large VIP events in the post-9/11 world, but London's missiles have sparked outrage among residents of an apartment block who learned that the Rapiers might be stationed on their roof. The news leaked out when a journalist who lives in one of the buildings found a flyer notifying residents of the plan. "My life has become militarized," said Brian Whelan. "I don't think anyone would choose to live in an army barracks."
Whelan and others in his area say the missiles are creating a climate of fear - which security experts say is exactly the point. "The British army and air force don't do all this to really shoot down a terrorist aircraft, they do it to display their determination to do so, which will hopefully prevent the terrorists from attacking," Wind said. "If you know that there are 500 policeman outside the jewelry store, you will not go there and try to rob the store."
Britain's defense ministry said Thursday it has not decided where it will ultimately station the missile batteries. Besides the main Olympic stadium in east London, a number of large venues will host soccer matches during the London Olympics, including the 90,000-seat Wembley, the Millennium Stadium in Wales and Old Trafford in Manchester - both with around 75,000 seats.
While many defense officials believe "there's no such thing as too much security," the likelihood of an aircraft being used as a weapon is low, said Charles Pena, a defense expert at the Oakland, California-based Independent Institute.
The Associated Press